The Culture of Narcissism

So I am not a fan of Amanda Marcotte’s work, but as they say, even a broken clock is right twice a day. Or in this case, close. Once.  Recently, Slate‘s resident “everything can be reduced to sexism” pundit wrote a post about why we shouldn’t find the video of the doofus asking Kate Upton to his prom charming, but yet another example of how the patriarchy teaches young men to be whistling cartoon wolves in zoot suits bent on total female subjugation, if not death. For Marcotte, this is just another brick in the wall of “the overall culture of male entitlement.” Well, she’s right about this episode revealing entitlement, but it has little to do with gender. This entitlement is the logical result of social networking culture’s amplification of one our shittiest human tendencies: our sense that we have any right to dictate how others feel about us. Genitals shmenitals.

To make this story all about patriarchal ills, Marcotte does not mention that this video proposal/demand has been directed at male celebrities too. Justin Timberlake was asked via YouTube to attend a Marine Corps ball and, unlike Upton, he agreed to go with his fan(atic). Now, maybe he actually wanted to do this, but if he didn’t, he really had no choice. If Timberlake had said no, he would have gotten slammed as anti-military, out of touch, and probably sexist for rejecting a woman with the “courage” to subvert gender norms by asking him out. In this sense, the stakes were a lot lower for Upton. No one really likes teenage boys, except maybe their mothers.

But I actually give Kate Upton a lot more credit than most celebrities who get put in this position. By (too) nicely saying no she reminded us of something we seem to have forgotten about as a culture. Just because you have Facebook and Twitter and follow celebrity accounts maintained by PR flacks does not mean you are actually friends with the people you worship. And no, you aren’t as worthy of their attention as they are of yours. They don’t pay to see you do anything. They don’t Google sexy pictures of you. They owe you nothing. And yet we applaud when some kid puts another human being in a really awkward spot in order to feed his own ego. Honestly, his parents should be ashamed. But I am sure they aren’t.

This sense of feeling like the objects of our affection owe us reciprocation is neither gendered nor new. The Greek gods and goddesses were constantly raping or turning the people they loved into animals or plants in order deal with the burn of rejection. Carrie Underwood had a hit song about fucking up some dude’s car for possibly cheating on her (listen to it, it’s all about things he’s “probably” doing). Obviously, I think it’s better that people don’t cheat on one another, but even in a committed relationship there is a limit to what we can do to those who disappoint us. If he cheats on you, Carrie, leave him. But leave his truck alone, you psychotic loser.

I recently finished reading two novels, Jeffrey Eugenides’s great The Marriage Plot, and Graham Greene’s middling England Made Me. Though published about 80 years apart, they are both about how, whether we want to admit it or not, loving someone else can often be a very selfish act. All three of the main characters in Eugenides’s book use each other to not have to admit their own selfishness. They are bright, urbane, and enlightened (Ivy Leaguers, dammit!), but they are terrified of being alone because then they’d realize that they are basically sad assholes. They want to be wanted and need to be needed. Most of us do, really. Greene’s book focuses on fraternal twins, a man and a woman, who are so in love with themselves that they try to sabotage each other’s relationships in order to preserve the possibility that they might make Quentin Compson’s deranged incestuous fantasies come to life. It’s not as creepy as it sounds because the book just isn’t, aside from a few incredible passages, very good, but watching the twins interact is about as comfortable as biting down on tinfoil.

If Eugenides and Green are warning against the dangers of self-obsession, this Kate Upton story is an example of how our social networking culture just encourages it. Far from being called out by an adult world with a sense of decency, this kid who asked her out was cheered on in his self-aggrandizing debasement by millions. He was on the fucking Today Show. No wonder kids are leaving college barely any smarter than when they arrive. Why work hard and take yourself away from fun when there’s a whole world (wide web) out there just waiting to make you a celebrity? All your friends are there. There’s Jay-Z, and A-Rod, and Marco Rubio, and Amanda Marcotte, and Kate Upton, and that kid who asked out Kate Upton…


One thought on “The Culture of Narcissism

  1. Pingback: InVincible | The General Reader

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